21 April 2008
Cutting The Cord(HKTDC Electronics, Vol 01,2008)
|DLNA Chairman Scott Smyers|
The home living room may still be host to a monumental electronic traffic jam, but exciting new developments promise more convenient connectivity
The humble suburban lounge has become a virtual battlefield for consumer appliance makers, PC manufacturers, software companies, network equipment firms, content owners and telecom carriers.
It's here that these diverse electronics industry players are desperately striving to carve out a piece of a wireless home network business that promises to be a financial bonanza.
But whereas not long ago these players competed against each other to win mastery of the home domain, today their rivalry is based on standards and partnerships.
At the simple hardware level, appliance makers have created High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI), a standard digital interface for audio and visual equipment.
But the most broadly-supported effort to allow home networks and electronic devices to talk to each other seamlessly is the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA).
Led by firms such as Sony, Microsoft, Intel and Panasonic but also including mainland Chinese firms Huawei Technologies and PC-maker Lenovo as active promoters, the alliance's 250 members represent almost every firm with an interest in home networking or entertainment.
DLNA Chairman Scott Smyers says the organisation was founded to provide "some commonality of user experience" across multiple devices and technologies using a common networking standard.
"It means you can print a photo from your phone, watch your TV movies stored on a PC, or listen to music on a mobile phone via a home entertainment system," he explains.
Home network standardisation even embraces the world's most popular electronic device - the mobile phone - as one of the founding members of DLNA in 2003 was Nokia, which has 40% of the world's cellphone market.
Today, its smart media devices are certified as media servers, meaning a tiny 150-gram phone can drive a media network for an entire household, serving up song files or photos for the home stereo or TV.
"From a Nokia perspective, we are looking forward to an open ecosystem and open standards, so consumers are not locked into one manufacturer," says Nokia's Director of Home Standardisation Mikko Puuskari.
The first DLNA certification programme was launched in September 2005, and more than 2,000 certified products are now on the market following the latest specifications issued in late 2007.
Mr Smyers says the next project for DLNA is to educate the market, which has seen the organisation in talks with US retailers about in-store promotions as well as cross-product connectivity in general.
"Retailers usually have their digital cameras in one department, and their PCs and TVs on other parts of the floor," he notes. "People need to be able to pick up the camera and walk over to the TV and plug it in."
The other priority groups are telecom service providers and content owners, because, Mr Smyers says, the former are focused on QoS issues while content providers need DRM interoperability "so they can deliver content to consumers in a way that enables them to use different devices".
Despite these standardisation efforts, Instat Research Analyst Michael Inouye says interoperability between devices and content is still some way off. "Even if we are willing to presume the hardware will work itself out in time, that still leaves a glaring hole - namely the content," he wrote in a recent research note.
Mr Inouye argues that the digital media landscape is marred by lawsuits and struggles for control - while the consumer is often left in the middle to make sense of it all. "Online video is still disconnected and when we add DRM, managed copies (or lack thereof) matters only become further complicated," he believes.
Appliance makers haven't been idle, either, and have been working hard at reducing complexity in the living room - but the connectivity options are actually expanding.
High-speed home networks can be built over either DSL, using the HomePNA standard Powerline (HomePlug) or coaxial cable (MOCA), but even more activity is apparent in the wireless camp thanks to its potential to cut the network cord altogether.
DLNA offers connectivity via three technologies: Ethernet, the wired PC networking standard, and two wireless standards, namely the well-established Wi-Fi and Bluetooth options.
Wi-Fi is the most popular option for networking a home around a wireless PC, and is already widely deployed in laptops and games consoles, offering speeds of typically 20 Mbps to 30 Mbps within a home.
Companies such as Linksys, one of the biggest vendors of home Wi-Fi kits, are trying to simplify network management by enabling consumers to drive all connected devices through a single user interface.
Bluetooth is best-known for providing cable replacement or synchronisation for low-powered personal devices such as mobile phones and cameras, carrying data at speeds of 1 Mbps-3 Mbps.
Two years ago the industry body behind the standard, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, merged its concept with another high-speed wireless data technology, ultra wideband (UWB), which potentially will deliver hundreds of megabits per second throughput.
But because the UWB standard will not be commercially ready for home networking deployment for two years, Bluetooth is being reconfigured to default to Wi-Fi if a higher bandwidth is needed.
That may not be enough, however, as two new technologies that aim to challenge the dominance of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in the home were on show at the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.
The first, called WirelessHD, and backed by heavy hitters such as Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, Panasonic and Intel, promises to cut the cord between the set-top box and the TV set.
Using the unlicensed 60 GHz radio spectrum, it can transport movies at speeds of 4 Gbps - fast enough, its supporters say, to send high-definition video across the living room without any compression.
Perhaps just as significantly, WirelessHD has the all-important backing of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which will probably be responsible for most of the paid content.
Its rival, showcased by a San Diego start-up called PulseLink, is based on UWB and can push TV signals across a living room at speeds of up to 890 Mbps. PulseLink also cites MPAA support, and says that one manufacturer, Westinghouse, has already built an HDTV containing its Cwave chipset.
The final wireless scenario aims to take advantage of the mobile phone, with UK firm ip.access making home cellular base stations that can support 3.5G data as well as voice calls.
Vice-president of marketing Andy Tiller says the company questioned the assumption that mobile devices would connect in the home only through Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. "Wi-Fi is not available in a lot of phones, and takes a bit of setting up, while Bluetooth is notoriously difficult to configure," he argues.
By comparison, the ip.access technology, known as femto cells, automatically logs users onto the network as they enter the premises, as simply as a mobile phone today connects to a voice network.
Femto cells hold obvious appeal to cellular operators because of the competitive position it gives them in the home, as well as improving the technical efficiency of their networks, Mr Tiller believes.
Femto cells are not yet standardised within the 3G community, but with 35% of mobile TV viewing and 40% of mobile data use taking place at home, Mr Tiller already sees demand. "Whether at home or elsewhere, the mobile phone is personal, private and convenient," he observes.
Whatever the outcome of these various technological battles, it's clear that the wireless home network is fast becoming a reality that promises enormous benefits for manufacturers and consumers alike.
TEXT BY ROBERT CLARK